Yet Louisiana's Legislature depends on stamps and postmen for making major policy decisions.
It often votes by mail, allowing correspondence to trump traditional debate. House and Senate staffers, in fact, spent most of last week stamping and counting mail ballots that proposed initial funding for the state's housing program.
They usually don't receive much press coverage and aren't treated with the same reverence as session votes, but these postal proxies are meaningful and do result in real government action. Year-to-date, through the first week of August, lawmakers have been asked to vote by mail on nine ballot issues since 2004 ' not including an emergency vote taken earlier this year to hold elections in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans.
But a public information request for the mail-ballot results reveals a participation rate that fluctuates from merely average to well below par. Additionally, the mail votes are not afforded the same standards as session votes when it comes to public access. They are not published in the Legislature's online database or in the official journal.
This lack of alternative record keeping can have repercussions. For instance, the state Senate was unable to find any recorded votes for a 2005 mail ballot where lawmakers decided against holding a veto session. Glenn Koepp, secretary of the Senate, says the ballots, as well as the tally sheet showing who voted how, were likely misplaced when being moved from one office to another.
"We tore this place apart looking for it," he says. "I think we just lost it."
The way this process and the votes are treated by the Legislature is more important than ever because mail ballots are about to increase. Legislative approval will be needed when the Louisiana Recovery Authority wants to spend more than $10 million. The LRA was formed last year following Katrina and Rita as a clearinghouse for federal money and other rebuilding issues.
House Clerk Butch Speer says the change could translate into roughly seven more mail ballots each year. This month alone, his staff will administer two LRA ballots on housing and labor. "We're going to be seeing a lot more of them," he says.
Traditionally, lawmakers have only voted by mail on two topics: whether to hold a veto session to overturn the governor's choices and to ratify certain actions by the Interim Emergency Board. The IEB handles emergency expenses that lawmakers don't plan for during the budgeting process. On a regular basis, the board asks lawmakers to approve appropriations, ranging in recent years from lock repairs for Acadiana to storm recovery money for Golden Meadow.
Brenda Erickson, a senior research analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, says lawmakers voting by mail when not in session is a new one for her ' even though it has been a Louisiana practice for decades. "Generally, members of legislatures are expected to be present to vote, but there are a few exceptions," Erickson says. "As a rule of thumb, though, most legislatures don't allow remote voting."
When it comes to actually returning the mail ballots back to Baton Rouge, lawmakers have differing records. According to the ballots provided by Speer's office, Rep. Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans Democrat, has the worst voting record ' by mail ' in the entire Legislature. Richmond doesn't have a single recorded vote on any of the ballots. When questioned, he suggests the tally sheets are "incorrect" and should be double-checked.
"I remember filling those ballots out," Richmond says.
He also argues that three of his votes on past veto sessions didn't have to be sent in, which is technically true. Voting on veto sessions is a tricky business. The law states that veto sessions are automatically held following a legislative session unless a majority of lawmakers return ballots calling it off. That means an absent vote on the tally sheet could either mean a lawmaker was in favor of a veto session, or he didn't bother voting at all. Staffers admit it's a confusing process and not very effective in determining where elected officials stand.
A few other members of the lower chamber trail Richmond in his voting record. Rep. Cedric Glover, a Democrat running for mayor of Shreveport, missed all but two of the regular mail ballots since 2004, as did Rep. Pete Schneider, a Republican from Slidell. On the Senate side, Sen. Max Malone, a Shreveport Republican, and Sen. Cleo Fields, a Baton Rouge Democrat, both have no recorded votes on four ballots.
Overall, the 39-member Senate has an average voting record by mail that runs parallel to session-only votes. About five senators per mail ballot have no recorded votes, representing 12 percent of the body. The House posts even more dismal numbers: an average 23 lawmakers, out of 105, don't vote at all on regular mail ballots, whether it's by mistake or otherwise.
Both Speer and Koepp say there hasn't been an overwhelming interest by lawmakers in reforming the way mail ballots are handled, from increasing public access to making veto session ballots more user-friendly. Unless the House and Senate do pass rules altering the way the process works, the only thing that will change is the number of ballots being mailed out. And for now, that's the only thing that can be expected.
"I have no plans and know of no plans to change anything," Speer says.
Corporations spending in state elections; Kenny G and Hong Kong; states resist gay marriage and more national and international news for Thursday, October 23, 2014.
Thursday's Blogs from the Bog!
School board members Mark Babineaux, Hunter Beasley and Tehmi Chassion can vote to fire Cooper — because we all know that’s exactly what they’ll do.
District 2 school board candidate Simon Mahan is hoping to unseat first-term incumbent and former Carencro Mayor Tommy Angelle in the Nov. 4 election.
District Attorney Mike Harson is showing his desperation by falsely attributing quotes to his opponent and blocking journalists from his social media.
The governor is traveling the country laying the groundwork for a possible 2016 presidential campaign, but his approval ratings at home hover well below 50 percent.
State District Judge Bob Downing extended the order and delayed a planned Wednesday hearing about a permanent injunction while negotiations continue between Attorney General Buddy Caldwell and the waste disposal site operator.
New Louisiana higher education commissioner Joseph Rallo will be paid more than his predecessor.
Elijah McGuire and Alonzo Harris each had four rushing touchdowns, and Louisiana-Lafayette rolled to 419 yards on the ground in a 55-40 victory over Arkansas State on Tuesday night.
Bill and Hillary Clinton are the validators-in-chief for Democrats struggling through a bleak campaign season in states where President Barack Obama is deeply unpopular.
President Barack Obama is turning to black radio listeners to plead for midterm votes, a targeted approach to drum up Democratic support at a time when many candidates don't want him around in person.
"I am extremely disheartened by the political machines that are attempting to hijack my efforts along with others that advocate for children."
Landrieu, who is fighting to keep her seat for a fourth term, said that Ebola is serious and precautions should be taken, but she accused Republicans of using the virus outbreak in West Africa to "create fear" here at home.
Law enforcement agencies are participating in a "Louisiana Heroin Summit," designed to address the recent rise in heroin use and drug-related deaths around the state.
State education officials are preparing to release performance scores for public schools and public school districts.
Saints coach Sean Payton is starting a new week by emphasizing, repeatedly, the many good things he noticed during New Orleans' latest loss.
We will be offering our recommendations on the constitutional amendments tomorrow.
The justices did not comment in leaving in place lower court rulings that dismissed the lawsuits against BP and other companies involved in the worst U.S. offshore oil spill.
White registration is down by 7,700 voters while black registration has shot up by 7,100 voters.
Even though it had been rumored for months, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu finally pulled the trigger recently on a major campaign shakeup that moved control over to a few Big Easy insiders.
Louisiana's health department says it will seek law changes to stop billing sexual assault victims for exams and tests.
It wasn’t the historic slashes to higher ed funding or the ensuing tuition spikes that recently had LSU’s student body and faculty riled up in collective outrage.
Will $400 be enough for the re-election campaign of LPSB's Hunter Beasley to overcome two years of holding our school system hostage and hurting the education of our children all because of a personal dislike of the superintendent?
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said Friday he expects his playing status in Detroit to be decided by coach Sean Payton on Sunday, shortly before the game.
Lawmakers have sidestepped a decision on whether they accept claims from Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration that the state closed last year's books with a nearly $179 million surplus.